New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 276

Country profile: Vietnam

Where is Cuba? Hanoi has an elegance that belies its association in the mind with war: tree-lined boulevards, an Old Quarter, the ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’. But one of Asia’s finest architectural jewels may not long survive the century.

Even five years ago you could wander around Hanoi on foot or on your bike and see a certain charm in the absence of road rules. Now traffic has become a serious problem: Vietnam has 330,000 cars and over four million motorbikes, respectively double and four times the numbers there were in 1990. Small hotels and office buildings are springing up all over the city, flouting planning restrictions or evading them through bribery – commercial rents in Hanoi are now as high as in Paris and 70-per-cent higher than in Sydney. The free market has arrived with a vengeance in what was once the very symbol of communism.

Vietnam’s struggle for independence from French colonialism was spearheaded by Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party. French troops were routed at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 but the country was divided in two as the US ruled out the prospect of elections the Communists would certainly have won. By 1965 the US was pouring troops into South Vietnam and bombing the North. The US-Vietnam War became an international focal point – but the price for Washington’s anti-communist crusade was paid mainly by ordinary civilians, 25,000 of whom died for each year of the War.

Defeated and bruised, the US withdrew in 1973; North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon two years later, reuniting the country under the Communist flag. Hanoi hoped for Western aid in reconstruction but found itself isolated, especially after it invaded neighbouring Cambodia in 1979, deposing the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Western nations imposed a trade-and-aid embargo which was not lifted until 1994; the US finally normalized relations in 1995.

By then Vietnam was profoundly changed. In 1986 the Communist Party embarked on a course of doi moi, or ‘renovation’ – economic reforms which started to open the country up to market forces and foreign investment. Once-banned street traders sprang into vigorous life and the Government passed some of the most liberal foreign-investment laws in Asia. Lately another catch-phrase has been on everyone’s lips – tut hau, or ‘catch up’ with the Asian Tigers on the fast track to economic growth.

The first fruits are there – rice production has doubled in six years to make Vietnam the world’s third-largest rice exporter while the economy has expanded at nine per cent for the last two years. ‘Vietnam has the last intelligent, cost-effective labour in Asia,’ says one keen Taiwanese investor. But businesspeople still complain of being stymied by ‘bureaucratic red tape’.

Certainly corruption is growing and official wheels turn slowly. But in part the suspicion of entrepreneurs reflects the Government’s wariness of an uncontrolled free market – Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet’s injunction to ‘learn, not copy’ economic laws and practice in the region is only sensible. Besides, as the market takes hold, the gap between rich and poor is yawning wider all the time.

The confusion is even reflected in the constitution, which defines Vietnam as a ‘socialist-oriented multi-sectoral economy driven by the state-regulated market mechanism’. Wow.

The Government’s only certainty is that Vietnam must remain a one-party state. It is much less repressive than it used to be and probably hopes to follow the South Korean path from harsh to gentle authoritarianism. But as Vietnam takes its rightful place in the world community the Government’s resistance to political reform is going to be more and more difficult to sustain.

Chris Brazier

AT A GLANCE

Photo from Vietnam
photo by CHRIS BRAZIER

LEADER: Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $170, the lowest in Asia and the seventh-lowest in the world.
Monetary unit: Dong
Main exports: rice, crude oil, coal and zinc
Main imports: oil products, fertilizers and steel
Foreign investment is growing rapidly – $3.7 billion in 1994, $5.4 billion in the first nine months of 1995. Hotels and manufacturing are the most popular sectors and Taiwan and Hong Kong provide the main investment capital. US companies have been slow to move – of the major players only Pepsi, Coca Cola and Mobil have arrived.

PEOPLE: 72.9 million. Population growth rate of 2.2%.

HEALTH: Infant mortality of 35 per 1,000 live births (Canada 6 per 1,000). Given Vietnam’s poverty this is a remarkably good record, reflecting the former priority on local clinics. But much medical treatment now has to be paid for and even the World Bank has criticized the Government’s under-investment.

CULTURE: Most people are Kinh/Vietnamese but there is a significant Chinese minority as well as 60 minority ethnic groups, mainly concentrated in the hills of the north and west.
Religion: Mainly Buddhist or traditional religions but there are two million Catholics. Religion was discouraged by the Communist Government but there is now much greater freedom of worship.

Sources: Far Eastern Economic Review; State of the World’s Children 1996.

Previously profiled April 1984


STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Once a society that prided itself on equality, income disparities are widening daily.
1984 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
91%. Still high despite the declining funding of education. The Vietnamese are passionate to learn.
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Has been forced into self-reliance by the collapse of Soviet support and by Western disapproval.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The social atmosphere is less repressive but the Communist Party’s authority can still not be challenged. .
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Traditional roles and attitudes persist despite women’s contribution during the War.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
65 years. Compares with a rich-world average of 76.
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POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The Communist Party is trying to avoid the painful lurch to the free market witnessed in the former Soviet bloc. But it is in danger of landing Vietnam’s people with the worst of both worlds – an authoritarian one-party state and a rampant free market which threatens the real achievements in health and education.


NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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Contents page
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NI Home Page

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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